Mt. Abe’s Ober to vie in state poetry competition

BRISTOL — Mount Abraham Union High School junior Casey Ober will be competing this Thursday, March 16, as one of 10 finalists in the state Poetry Out Loud competition.
“Casey has been enthusiastically participating in Poetry Out Loud for three years, so I was really excited to see her go on to the semifinals and then just overjoyed and proud that she’s going on to states,” said Colleen Kiley, English teacher and Poetry Out Loud advisor at Mount Abe.
Ober won her finalist spot competing against 34 students from around the state at the Vermont Poetry Out Loud semifinals last Wednesday in Barre.
Poetry Out Loud is a nationwide poetry performance program designed to build poise and confidence in public speaking together with a love of poetry. Contestants must perform two poems, one of which must have been written before 1900. All poems must be from the collection found on the Poetry Out Loud official website. The compendium offers a rich selection ranging from the Elizabethan era to now, everything from “They flee from me that sometime did me seek” to “Back when I used to be an Indian / I am standing outside the / pool hall with my sister.”
This performance competition was created by the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts and is administered through each state’s arts council.
This year at Mount Abe a close-knit band of five students started meeting once a week after school in October, Kiley said. This year’s Poetry Out Loud participants were ninth-grader Owen Darling of Bristol and 11th-graders Madeline Bernoudy (Lincoln), Molly Funk (Bristol), Chloe Lyons (New Haven), and, of course, Ober, who’s from Lincoln.
Students read poems together, discussed and analyzed them and started making their selections, said Kiley.
“The discussion that we get to have around poems and literature in general is really special and unique,” she said.
To really get down to the nitty-gritty, students had to memorize their two poems and begin working on their performances.
   LINCOLN TEEN CASEY Ober, center, stands with the other regional finalists who will compete in the Vermont Poetry Out Loud final in Colchester this Thursday.
Ober chose Montreal-native Suzanne Buffam’s “Enough” (published in 2010) and Victorian poet Arthur Symon’s “April Midnight” (1892).
Ober said she likes to leaf through the Poetry Out Loud website “often using the (site’s) ‘random poem’ generator.” It can be really hard to finally pick just the right ones.
“These two poems in particular I chose from just searching and searching,” she said.
Ober said she was drawn to “Enough” by “that element of feminism that was present in the poem. It’s important to me that everyone keeps on fighting for equal human rights. And I think that in this poem the person speaking was feeling restricted by domesticity and the old-fashioned roles of women.”
Ober found that poem’s final image especially powerful — “A train whistles through the far hills. / One day I plan to be riding it” — because it evokes the longing for freedom.
For the wistful “April Midnight” Ober just loved the image it conjured up for her.
“Every time I read it I just pictured a couple from potentially the 1920s who were dancing and laughing in the slightly rainy streets of London at night. This image just makes me smile and made me want to portray the feelings of two and their adventures in London.”
As the school contest neared, the Mount Abe Poetry Out Loud crew enjoyed a poetry and performance workshop with Vermont Arts Council guest artist Lizzy Fox.
Students performed in front of their peers during a morning advisory on Feb. 16.
“To see these students get on stage (some of them sometimes quite shy otherwise) and present beautiful poetry — it’s a nice celebration of poetry that a lot of our school attends,” said Kiley.
Kiley noted too how much the Poetry Out Loud program builds confidence in public speaking along with deepening a love of literature, and gave a typical example of one student’s journey.
“One student in particular just comes to mind. She said at the beginning she’s totally afraid of public speaking. I wasn’t even sure that she would participate in the final school performance. And then she just went up there with poise and so much knowledge about her poem,” said Kiley. “I think that’s what’s really cool to see. They become experts of their poem. And they own that poem.”
Having won at the semifinal level, Ober is preparing herself for this week’s challenge. Finalists must have a third poem up their sleeves, and Ober has chosen Mary Cornish’s humorous contemporary poem “Numbers.”
Kiley said that she and Ober will be hard at work this week, going back over the two poems Ober performed to win at Mount Abe and in Barre and polishing up “Numbers.”
The winner of the Vermont state competition will advance to the national competition April 25-26 at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
The Vermont Poetry Out Loud finals will be held at the Vermont PBS Studio, Thursday, March 16, starting at 7 p.m. PBS will be webcasting the event live. To sign up for the webcast, go to vermontpbs.org/poetryoutloud.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].   Five Mount Abe students competed in the regional Poetry Out Loud competition in Barre last week; they are, left to right, Madeline Bernoudy, Casey Ober, myself, Chloe Lyons, Molly Funk and Owen Darling.

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